November 30, 2017

One of the most poignant phrases in all of the Bible is found in Luke 2:7, “because there was no room for them in the inn.” In a time of great personal need, Mary and Joseph were homeless. Jesus was born into a family that was essentially faceless and nameless to the Emperor, the Governor and the King. His family was certainly not alone in their predicament, but they must have felt a great loneliness. Thankfully, someone came up with a Band-Aid solution, “a stable or a cave is better than a street corner,” and Jesus was born in a place where he could be kept warm and dry. The Bible puts it more beautifully, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.”

Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus suggests that if Jesus were to be born in Oakland in 2017, it is likely that he would be born in an encampment under a freeway or in a tent city in a park. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus suggests that we need to see the almost 4,000 unhoused residents of our city as modern day Marys and Josephs, human beings who are very near to the heart of God, human beings who bring us into the presence of Jesus.

In recent weeks, thanks to encouragement from John Claassen and Bruce Quan, I have been in a number of meetings with religious leaders and City officials pertaining to the current crisis of homelessness. John, Bruce and another colleague are hoping to get a small pilot project connecting a church parking lot, a tiny house, city services, a caring community and an unhoused family off the ground. I respect and commend them for their vision and caring.

In these conversations, we have learned that the City of Oakland and the County of Alameda are envisioning short-term, mid-term and long-term solutions to the current crisis. In the short term, one of the most achievable solutions is the establishment of one or more safe parking lots where people who are living in their cars, trucks and recreational vehicles can park safely and have access to showers, restrooms, food and good counsel. In several cities on the West Coast such parking lots, often provided by churches, have been of great help to many. The key right now is to identify potential parking lots.

In the mid-term, building and placing hundreds of tiny homes or Tuff Sheds, portable housing of 500-800 square feet per unit including kitchen, bathroom and sleeping space, hold promise. The cost of constructing these temporary structures is about $1.25 per square foot. The need right now is to locate funding as well as well as places to locate the homes.

In the long term, relying on funds from Alameda County Measure AA and Oakland Measure LL, both of which were approved by voters in the fall of 2016, it is important to get serious about building many hundreds, if not thousands, of affordable housing units. Unfortunately, the federal government, historically a key partner in the development of affordable housing, is currently a much less reliable partner.

In the meantime, we all do well to sit with the words so central to the story of Christmas, “there was no room for them in the inn.” What do they mean to us? How do they speak to us? In what directions do they point us? Who do they encourage us to be in contact with?


Jim H.